The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef

By Sean Latham | Go to book overview

6. The Coterie as Commodity

Huxley, Lawrence, Rhys, and
the Business of Revenge

The experiments Joyce and Lewis conducted at the interface between modernism, libel law, and the roman à clef were often extraordinary, but they were by no means unique. Narratives of all kinds throughout the early twentieth century began to put so much pressure on the news/novel divide that the publishing industry as a whole took notice. In the June 1931 issue of The Bookman, Hugh Ross Williamson devoted his monthly editorial column to the resurgent skepticism provoked by the roman à clef and the scandalous reading habits it cultivated. In a series of paragraphs with headings such as “Honest at a Discount” and “Drawing from Life,” he laments the increasing “affinity of history to fiction” as well as the wide popularity of a “modern school of historians who contrive to make [biography] more entertaining than the legitimate novel.”1 He imagines ominous consequences for both the novel and history as each begins to blur into the other and thus surrender its own autonomous and unique claims to truth. “A great number of novels today,” he continues, “are of course romans à clef, and now that so many authors are also reviewers of each other’s work, this game has become a sort of family pastime.”2 A magazine devoted precisely to the business of authorship and publishing, The Bookman was very much a part of this same family, and no matter how serious the editor’s concerns, his reviews and advertising columns were nonetheless filled with references to the sort of works he critiques.

In this same essay, in fact, he tackles one of the most famous cases of the day: the publication in 1930 of Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, a roman à clef that

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